A Rebours

I just read a delightfully cracktastic book that you all need to know about. It's Joris-Karl Huysmans's 1884 decadent French piece of decadent decadence called A Rebours, or Against the Grain (or Against Nature, depending on how your translate it). This has come to stand for the epitome of decadent literature (although Aubrey Beardsley's 1896 Unicorn Porn and Oscar Wilde's 1891 nightmare orgasm can certainly give this a run for its money).

It's only a short novella, so I highly suggest you read it. The whole thing can be found online here.

The novella centers around a wealthy Parisian man named des Esseintes, whose money and connections have allowed him to live exactly how he wants with no struggles or need to tolerate any situation he does not like. He has become so obsessed with his own comfort and good taste and so disgusted with everyone else in society, that he retreats to a country mansion to live the life of the DANDIEST hermit ever to walk the globe.

There is no plot to this book. Therefore, I will recount some scenes below in no particular order:

1.) The most famous scene is undoubtedly the tortoise scene (from now on, picture me saying tortoise in a hideous fake French accent: tor-TWA). des Esseintes is trying to create the perfect room. He talks for aaaaaaaaages about the right colors for the wall paper and how colors change in certain lighting and blah blah blah, so boring, let's get to the good part.

He buys this luxurious carpet and it's soooo beautiful with all of these hints of color laced throughout it, but somehow, it's not quite perfec.t Then he figures it out: the carpet is slightly too bright. He needs something dull to go on the carpet to help tone down its brightness. Does he get a footstool? A coffee table? An armchair? No. The ONLY thing that will do is a live tortoise, because the carpet has undercurrents of tortoise color, or something. Yeah! A live, dull-looking tortoise wandering around your carpet all day long will really tie the room together.

So he gets a tortoise and is horrified to discover that, actually, the tortoise's blandness makes the carpet look even more garish. He needs to go entirely the different way. He needs something ridiculously bright and colorful to put the carpet to shame! Again, I ask you, what does he get to put on the carpet? A chest full of treasure? A human-sized Faberge egg? An armoire studded with Flava Flav's teeth? NO. He goes back to the goddamned tortoise.

He takes the tortoise to his jeweler (and in fin de siecle France, I'm sure this probably wasn't even the weirdest request that jeweler had seen) and tells him to gild the tortoise. So he does. And des Esseintes brings the gold and confused tortoise back home and is like, "Wow, that's great. With this gold tortoise wandering around, it really distracts from my carpet."


But then even a gold tortoise is not quite enough. He takes it back to the jeweler and says, "I have carefully selected all of these perfect jewels that were just sitting around my house and I want you to embed them in the tortoise's shell, mimicking the pattern of its shell that is already present and totally doesn't need any rubies and pearls to make it more obvious. And the jeweler, who is clearly not a member of PETA, does this.

des Esseintes bring his jewel-encrusted bling-tortoise home, puts it on the carpet, says, "My magmum opus is complete", and then notices that the tortoise has promptly died from all the weight. And he goes, "Shucks." I have no idea if he just left the tortoise there or not.

Really missed his calling as an interior decorator. Think what he could have done to all of those tacky celebrity homes on MTV Cribs.

2.) des Esseintes, in an attempt at synesthesia, tries to create an orchestra in his mouth.

He decides that every type of booze has a musical instrument counterpart. I don't remember which ones were what, exactly, but for example, gin was like a trumpet, whisky was like a violin, champagne was like a flute, etc.

So he drinks a bunch of booze all together to create an ochestra. It's gross. (see Nicolas Cage picture above).

3.) des Esseintes becomes bored with everything in his mansion and decides to take a trip. There are only two places in the world he has ever wanted to visit. One was Holland, and he went there several years back, and it was disappointing. Mostly because des Esseintes is chronically unsatisfied. The other place is England, because he loves the works of Dickens and wants to go see some fog and eat some bangers and mash and shit. Live the life of an authentic Dickensian orphan for a bit, minus all of the discomfort, poor hygiene, and general lack of money.

He packs all of his bags and goes down to the harbor to catch a ship over to London. While there, he decides to eat at some squalor-ific inn, and sees a bunch of English-looking people having a good rowdy time. For the first time in ages, des Esseintes's appetite comes back and he eats a lot of hearty, un-fancy food and drinks some nasty beer, and listens to English people joke and talk about the weather, and he has a WONDERFUL time slumming it.

As soon as he leaves the inn, he decides that this is the most authentic English experience he could ever have, and knows that if he were to go to England, he would end up disappointed because nothing could top this fairly uneventful trip to an inn.

So he goes home and unpacks.Trip to England complete . . . ish.

4.) He spends a long time smelling perfumes and trying to create the perfect one. He accidentally takes a whiff of a perfume that is SO BAD that it makes him faint. His servants panic and have to run and fetch the doctor to come deal with his 'shattered nerves'.

As I said on Twitter, this is the Frenchest thing I've ever read. Find the foppest fop to ever fop the fop, and he still won't be as foppish as des Esseintes.

Also, I imagine his doctor is getting REAL sick of being called over for this kind of bullshit.

5.) des Esseintes has a toothache and knows his tooth needs to be pulled. His normal dentist is closed. Usually he would wait for his normal dentist, because he's more sensitive than the common peasant and needs his teeth to be treated gently. I guess his teeth roots are made from butterflies' wings and nitroclygerin or something. I don't know.

His toothach gets so bad that he goes, "SCREW IT. I'm going to a *gulp* peasant doctor!" He visits some horribly bourgeois place that has the GALL to be able to treat him right away. Psh. Any place worth its salt would have at least an hour waiting list. As soon as he knocks on the door, he changes his mind (probably because the door is made of some inferior substance, like wood). He tries to leave, but gets shuffled inside. The guy rips his tooth out and it is the most horrible indignity anyone has suffered ever in the history of mankind, even though this is exactly what he paid to have happen.

des Esseintes leaves, furious. As soon as he is outside the door, however, he spits out a big glob of blood on the dentist's doorstep, goes, "Oh, wow, I feel loads better", and is able to go about his normal day.

5.) des Esseintes gets a new hobby: corrupting youth and breeding murderers.

He finds this young, beautiful teenage boy on the street and goes: "I'm going to turn that guy into a killing machine. You know, for the lolz." So he takes this boy to a ridiculously nice brothel, gets aaaaall the prostitutes to get up on the boy's junk, and tells the boy, "Oh, I see you really enjoyed the sexings. I have paid the brothel madame a fee, so you can come here once every two weeks and get your freak on."

des Esseintes tells the brothel madame his real plan, however. He says that for a few months, he will, indeed, pay for the boy to have sex once every two weeks. That way, it's frequent enough to give the boy a taste for the finer vices in life,  but infrequent enough so he does not sate his lust. I'm like, "Dude, he's 16 years old. He could go every day and still not sate his lust, but whatever."

Then, after a few months, des Esseintes will stop footing the bill. The boy will have developed an addiction to high-class call girls and he will turn to stealing in order to pay for his vice. Eventually, des Esseintes hopes, one of the robberies will go bad and the boy will end up killing someone. Or he'll just end up murdering someone for their money outright.

des Esseintes parts ways with the boy after their first trip to the brothel and declares to himself that he will keep a close eye on the papers to see when the boy becomes a murderer. We never find out what happens.

6.) Finally, at the end of the book, des Esseintes's health is all but broken. He can't eat, his sleep schedule is all messed up, his nerves are constantly being shattered over nonsense, all the normal illnesses for people who have too much money and not enough to do. His doctor tells him that if des Esseintes doesn't rejoin society and FIND SOMETHING TO DO WITH HIS GODDAMNED TIME, he will literally die.

He goes, "Well, that can't be accurate" and gets a second and a third opinion. Both of the other doctors tell him the same thing, and I am convinced that they are all in cahoots. The first doctor is probably like, "Guys, I beg of you. I cannot treat this guy anymore. Please just tell him to get a life. Take two mistresses and call me in the morning."

So des Esseintes grudgingly packs up his house and moves back to Paris. THE END.

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One Response to A Rebours

  1. I have just been reading this exact book! (It was my second attempt; the first time I got stuck at the point where there’s that seemingly-interminable list of authors with their pros and cons, according to Des Esseintes’ exacting tastes.)

    Anyway, I really rather love Des Esseintes, especially because he was partly based on a real life OTT dandy, Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac. That’s the very same fellow who also inspired Proust’s Baron Charlus – the man was so outrageously exquisite that he gets to be immortalised in fiction TWICE.


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